9.3.10

THAT SOFT BIGOTRY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS. Southeastern University, in Washington, D.C., closes after it loses its accreditation.

Southeastern was spending more on fund-raising than it was receiving in donations, the accreditor noted. The school’s graduation rate was a paltry 14 percent. Overall student pass rates on six exams administered through an allied health program were, respectively, 0, 0, 0, 16, 33, and 40 percent. The university had only six full-time faculty for more than thirty academic programs. Not courses—programs. One of the six was also the registrar. Middle States "found no evidence that students have knowledge, skills, and competencies consistent with institutional and appropriate higher education goals."

The letter is proof that accreditation standards do exist; despite the wide latitude institutions receive to define and evaluate their own success, it is possible to be bad enough long enough to lose accreditation. But Southeastern also illustrates just how low those standards are and how long they can be defied. Given the university’s multidecade history of loan defaults, financial struggles, and scandal, it’s fair to assume that similar letters could have been written years before.

Why, then, did Middle States wait so long to pull the plug? Surprisingly, the accreditor provided an entirely plausible answer at the end of the letter: "Ever since Southeastern University’s initial accreditation … in 1977, the Commission has recognized the University’s mission of serving diverse and underserved student populations. It is largely as a consequence of this recognition that the Commission has been so forbearing in its actions to date."

It was a masterpiece of perverse logic. Of all students, those from diverse and underserved backgrounds are most in need of a high-quality college education. They live at the margins of economic opportunity and often attend substandard K–12 schools. They are at the greatest risk of dropping out and are least likely to have social networks and college-educated parents who can help them evaluate institutional quality. Nobody needs the protection of a strong regulatory body more. And yet Middle States lowered its standards for Southeastern to near-subterranean levels precisely because the university served vulnerable students.

And Southeastern is not alone.

Isn't the failing really in those substandard K-12 schools? To repeat: as long as institutions like Southeastern substitute self-congratulation, to borrow a Thomas Sowell expression, for substance, the U.S. News rankings will have value as ambitious students and their parents seek to avoid the institutions where academic content is inversely proportional to proclamations of access, or of diversity.

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